Friday, March 30, 2012

Spring Break - A Time of Renewal

     I know some of you will have completed your Spring Break already while others may be in the midst of it. I hope all of you were able to use the time away as a period of renewal and re-charging of your formidable personal energy stores.

     I hope the photo above (taken on the last day of my break) of the sunset in Kona brings back some positive thoughts of your break. It's not the location that is important but the notion of some time away from the challenges of being an educator that is paramount. Whatever your role in a school or district today, it is marked by hard work. More importantly, it is marked by "heart work" and that can be quite draining on our personal lives.

     My son recently shared this observation with me that accurately sums up why I needed a break: "I look at the past with great humour and the future with great's the present that is wearing me down!" While he is not in the education sector, he clearly understands our challenge.

     Recent trips to Winnipeg and Ottawa revealed for me the power of some time away. The educators I encountered were full of energy and enthusiasm that was, in part, borne out of "some time to breathe and reflect" as one teacher shared with me. All were aware of the challenges that remain before them as the school year moves to conclusion. The passion and commitment to draw out every possible success for their students was equally obvious.

     I hope you took advantage of the time away to be away from your work and with the other aspects of your life that help to define who you are. Best wishes moving forward with the rest of the school year.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

In Praise of Teachers

Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ears
I come to praise teachers not to bury them.

     Okay, maybe those weren't the famous words of Marcus Antonius but I think I can make a compelling case for why they should be. And no, this is not going to be a rant designed to sway the views of anyone engaged in the myriad of teacher disputes that seem so prevalent today. Instead it is my homage to the group that I feel carries the most sway and creates the greatest benefits for our society today. Teachers are the difference makers, they are the game changers, and they are the folks who have the strongest impact on the communities of the future. It's long past the time where they should be acknowledged as such. Regardless of whom you might admire and regardless of that individual's field of endeavour, it's very likely a teacher started them on their course. Yes, I'm aware of the exceptions - the self made geniuses - but those folks are the exceptions. Just like the world's oldest man who, upon being asked the secret to his longevity, confesses to a shot of scotch and a daily cigar, anomalies abound. The general rule is that a teacher somewhere started the ball rolling.

     The role of the teacher has taken on a much greater complexity than when I was a student. Perhaps one of the biggest differences has to do with the nature of the students making up todays' classroom. When I went to school, the vast majority of the population "looked like me". It was a pretty homogenous population. Students that were different in any way went to specialized schools and were rarely seen in the public school. My children went to school with students from across the spectrum of needs and learned valuable skills as a result. I believe they got a better education as a result of ALL students being integrated into the public school and I will continue to champion full integration as the correct model. However, it does bring a unique set of challenges that seemingly escapes those who reminisce for the good old days where classes of 40 students were acceptable. As alluded to earlier, this may have been okay (although I highly doubt the effectiveness) when the group was fairly similar but it no longer works today. A recent visit to a grade 7 classroom brought this to light. The teacher had 30 students including one whose behaviour is quite severe and is marked by regular outbursts that include swearing and throwing desks. The teacher manages this with a gentle, supportive manner while also having the remaining 29 students on task and learning valuable skills of empathy and support. This is not to suggest that the remaining students do not also pose the occasional challenges but does underscore what's different in classrooms today. It's also why comparisons to a different era are irrelevant and serve only to confuse the issue and add to a negative portrayal that is both unfair and unfortunate.

     I am thankful to the many teachers who have made significant contributions to my life and have provided the foundation that has allowed me to achieve many things. The early predictors were not always so positive and I know some great teachers challenged those and provided a spark that set a better path in place. Mr. Mullahoo, Mr. Springer, Mrs. Fainsilber, Mr Huberman, and Mr. Cheyne all left positive impressions with me and they did so without ever knowing if their good efforts would take hold. I am thrilled that my youngest daughter has entered the teacher education program and I know she will be a difference maker. We don't talk about salary as she (like most teachers) is not entering the profession to become rich but instead to provide a richness to the lives of others.

"You want to know what I make?
I'm a teacher, and I make a difference"

last line from the book "What Do You Make?" by Tom Hierck

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Let's Eliminate Rewards (From Our Lexicon)

There is no way to achieve educational excellence in a school where purposes are blurred 
(Ernest Boyer)

     Some of the best conversations I've engaged in lately center around the topic of rewards. A recent blog ( by Dr. Richard Curwin brought the topic to the fore once again. Curwin's writing has been influential throughout my career and is reflected in my beliefs on this topic so it was refreshing to see how he frames some of the debate. More on that later in this post. His post also resonated with colleague and co-author Chris Weber (@Chi_educate). We've tried to strike the right balance in our book ( that speaks to the realities we face in schools today. Chris suggested that he is never going "to use the word 'rewards' again" because rewards are conditional (if you do this, then you'll get that). His intent is instead to "catch students being good" because that's "appreciation". The challenge posed by Boyer's quote above is that we need to have a degree of consistency across the school that is borne out of reflective dialogue amongst the educators.

     These common expectations are more than just rules; they create a vision of the end we have in mind and reflect core values. They should reflect the notion that we ought to spend more time on the positive reinforcement of appropriate behaviors than on the identification of negative ones. Curwin talks about this as showing appreciation. His belief is that "we have a responsibility and obligation as teachers to evaluate students' academic performance and behavior." How we do these evaluations and what we do with the information we gain are the critical pieces. Curwin speaks to the difference "between manipulating students to behave in a certain way by giving them things when they comply, and expressing true feelings of appreciation for something well done." His views differ in this regard from other luminaries like Kohn and Glasser who suggest this is still tantamount  to influencing behavior to get students to do what we want. Curwin suggests that "No one can work hard without validation, appreciation, being noticed or being thanked"and supports this type of feedback "as long as these things don't have a price tag attached." I know how hard educators work and I fully believe we deserve recognition for it. There is a difference between manipulating someone by offering rewards that are conditional and pre-determined, and appreciating someone after they have displayed appropriate behavior. Rewards are part of a system while appreciation comes from the heart.

     Curwin also speaks about the importance of having appropriate levels of challenge for our students as a better option than any form of reward for increasing motivation. He poses a question that resonated with me. Given the option of engaging in a game with an opponent, would you choose the person who you routinely beat or the person to whom you have routinely lost but been close each time? Not surprisingly most people choose the latter option. And so it is with our students. It is important to find the right level of challenge as too easy builds little pride, and in some instances resentment, (think of the student who completes the assigned questions early and is given more of the same) and too hard leads to frustration and withdrawal. In our technology impacted world, video games may offer some insight. Students who engage in these go to the level that best meets their ability and continue until they master that level. Of course if we attached rewards to completing a level, many would opt for an easier level. When students are given the opportunity to make personal meaning of the expectations they are more likely to internalize them and achieve desirable outcomes.  

     Curwin's third point is one that really resonates with me. He speaks about the importance of getting to know your students and showing genuine care for their welfare. He suggests we think about teachers that impacted us and to recall why they did and the feelings associated with those memories. In "Pyramids of Behavior Interventions" we list both the positive and negative recollections many adults have shared with us about teachers who impacted them. Here's the list:


Cared about me as an individual
Brought learning to life, made it real
Took extra time to help me learn
Always fair, reasonable & understanding
Inspired me to do my best


Did not know me or care about me
Made the subject dry and boring
Often unfair or arbitrary
Yelled, screamed, put kids down
Seemed more interested in the subject than the kids

As Curwin states, "Can any reward or bribe come close to these feelings as motivators?" I know the genuine emotion that occurs when people share these stories with me and it reminds me of the significant impact we have day by day and minute by minute on our students. Curwin's final comment is an ideal summary. "I always remember that I teach for them, they don't learn for me." It's time to eliminate "rewards" and speak more to "acknowledging" and "appreciating" the demonstrated behaviors our students are displaying.